At home it’s always safe. —Zbigniew Herbert
For several months in 2010 I suffered from anxiety induced nausea while riding the subway. It was a peculiar kind of subterranean panic. It came in waves. It was associated with the sound of the doors closing. The automated lady’s voice. Please stand clear. Inside my head. The light at the outer edge of the station turning green and yellow and red and green. The train approaching. My mouth watering. Pavlovian. Rush hour. The unfriendly faces of strangers. Picturing the contents of my stomach. I got on the train or I waited for the next train. Or the train after that. I held my breath or breathed too deeply. I closed my eyes. I tried humming. Meditating. Reading. I thought of the train stalled sometimes for long intervals under the east river. The weight of the water above us. The narrow subterranean tunnel that the train crawled through. My mouth. I imagined myself fainting. I felt my heart beating. I listened to soothing, familiar music. Cat Stevens. CCR. Early Dylan. Stuck inside a mobile with the Memphis blues again. In my head there was a map that recorded the distance between me and my apartment—the only place where nausea isn’t so bad. Sometimes I got off the train. Missed appointments. Took the bus. Sometimes I walked home—once all the way from Grand Central Terminal more than 7 miles away. I’m sorry, I said when I got home, to the person I lived with and no longer loved. Maybe something is really wrong with you, he said. Yes, I thought. The doors kept closing.
The Nausea is not inside me. I am the one who is within it. —Jean-Paul Sartre
In Jean Paul Sartre’s novel Nausea, the protagonist Antoine Roquentin experiences a series of existential events that make him question the nature of reality and the boundaries of the self. Nausea is an appropriate descriptor for Roquentin’s condition in that it overtakes him (and in a sense obliterates him), but it originates, he believes, from some external source. His nausea begins on a Saturday at the seaside when Roquentin comes upon a group of children playing and decides to join them in their game of tossing stones into the sea. He picks up a stone and finds he is unable to throw it. Instead, he is seized by a feeling he describes as a sort of sweetish sickness that passes from the stone to my hand. The nausea is only one layer of Roquentin’s problem. The other layer has to do with the way he thinks about his nausea, his capacity to deceive himself when he tries to understand it, and the possibility that the nausea may be a kind of side effect of his inability to maintain a clear distinction between himself and everything else. I am beginning to believe that nothing can ever be proved, Roquentin writes in his diary, which the meta-conceit of the book presents as a found text instead of an imagined one.
He must be able to abstract himself and also to abstract reality, which he does by placing it in his imagination. — Wallace Stevens
Because I have been writing and because it is cold outside, I haven’t left my apartment for almost three days, something I haven’t done in several years. I’ve been sitting around reading “Nausea,” a Wallace Stevens’ essay about the imagination, and Zbigniew Herbert’s Mr. Cogito poems, writing, eating cereal, and researching famous recluses on the internet. Disappointingly, Sartre was never reclusive. I read on Wikipedia that he had a condition called “exotropia,” which sounds like a serious and abstract malaise but, it turns out, is just a fairly common eye condition. I wonder what Sartre, who believed in freedom above all else, felt confined by. Probably the constraints of bourgeois attitudes or the ontological problem of authenticity or the failure of art to have any real effect on the world. I imagine that if Sartre were alive today he would feel overwhelmed by the number of choices there are and how little all of them matter.
The longer I stay inside my apartment, the longer I am able to remain absorbed in abstraction and ignore what Stevens calls the pressures of reality. I wonder if this kind of willful abstraction is cowardly. I can receive nothing more from these tragic solitudes than a little empty purity, Roquentin writes. I wonder if maintaining a close connection to reality, which I assume has something to do with proximity to suffering, has any effect on the world. Can our thoughts, when abstracted, somehow reach the rushing river of someone else’s thoughts? Is empathy a function of the imagination and does empathy, if conveyed, do anything? Stevens thought so. He writes of the imagination as a kind of irrepressible force that attaches itself to reality and modulates to meet the demands imposed by new conditions of the real—in this way, the imagination evolves to accommodate wars, social upheaval, suffering, events that stir the emotions to violence. He describes the artist as a kind of projector who transposes his own imagination like a beam of light into the minds of others. And this light, Stevens believes, helps people live.
He used the imagination for entirely different purposes. He wanted to make it an instrument of compassion —Zbigniew Herbert
When I was in my early twenties my friend Janice lived in a duplex upstairs from a lady who was an alcoholic and who never left her apartment. I saw her a couple of times at the mailbox and I used to know her name, but now I’ve forgotten it. Her hands shook and her voice shook and her eyes were milky and dull. She didn’t eat very much and had the look of someone who was slowly disappearing. Every month, she would sign over her disability check and Janice would go to the liquor store and buy her industrial sized plastic bottles of vodka, the cheap stuff we used to call “handles” simply because, I realize now, the bottles have handles. I remember getting upset with Janice for not reminding the lady to eat or asking if there was anyone she could call. A position, I now recognize, that was naive. A few months before I graduated from college, the lady died in her apartment. Janice found her body and called me. I drove over to the house, and we smoked weed and talked about death and then hid all of the weed lying around and called the cops to come take the lady’s body away.
I remember the drive to the house that afternoon. It wasn’t raining but it had rained. It was early spring. I remember. So many things were ending. In the car ride over. I felt bad that whatever sadness I had was for myself and not for the lady who died. Or that’s how I wish I felt. And the memory of that car ride becomes less real as I write it down. The rain and the lady’s body. Now. I can imagine never leaving my apartment. How it would expand around me. I grow warm, Roquentin writes, I begin to feel happy. There is nothing extraordinary in this, it is the small happiness of Nausea: it spreads at the bottom of the viscous puddle, at the bottom of our time. There was a loneliness in the lady that died that I want this essay to be about. In the early dark of a gloomy November twelve years later I want to remember the lady’s name. I want to be a better and more compassionate person. Or rather, I want to have been. Someone else. After the lady died, her son showed up, and we thought he was an asshole because he didn’t take care of his mother. But we didn’t know the whole situation. We heard him banging around downstairs. His grief was all the ways I’ve misremembered everything. His cheap suit. His dirty car in the driveway. The plastic vodka bottles in the dumpster behind the house. The way I felt complicit. Even here I’m imagining more than remembering. The layout of the apartment. The dark staircase. The insurmountable distance isn’t time but empathy. I want to apologize. I’m trying to use this essay as an instrument of compassion but I don’t know how.
A poet’s words are of things that do not exist without the words. — Wallace Stevens
In Herbert’s poem, “Mr. Cogito and the Imagination,” Mr. Cogito, the thinking man, denounces the artificial fires of poetry in favor of a more precise empathy that allows the imagination to move cleanly from suffering to suffering with the motion of a pendulum. The poem is not actually about the imagination or empathy, but is instead, like all poems, about poetry itself. How it never quite manages to convey the ineffable. How it relies on words like tautologies to describe directness. How it wrings out a facsimile of the real like an old towel. Inside the poem, every attempt to express empathy contains this paradox: it is used up as soon as it is written down. And it spills, now, out the sides of my mouth. Into this essay. And becomes something like mud. Obscured and decorous. I’d say it’s like nausea, but all of these metaphors only make it worse.
Besides, unreal things have a reality of their own. — Wallace Stevens
At first, I tried to will the nausea way, treating it as though it were not real. But I realized that even though the nausea was a symptom of something imaginary, it was not itself imagined. A few times I really did become sick. And the sickness confirmed the panic that perpetuated the nausea. In a grim cycle. The doors opening and closing. The light at the outer edge of the station. Turning over. The platform filling and emptying. Ad nauseum, from the Latin, meaning, to a sickening extent. Nausea, a word invented to describe seasickness. The journey that won’t end. The boat you can’t get off of. That bottomless ocean of panic.
In Herbert’s poem, “Mr. Cogito’s Monster,” Mr. Cogito, the thinking man, confronts a force that, like nausea, lacks all dimensions and eludes definitions. If not for its stifling weight, Mr. Cogito thinks, and the death it sends / you might conclude / that it was a phantom / a disease of the imagination / but it’s there. Locked inside a train car with a pulse. For Roquentin the nausea is different; it is a form of escape. He can disappear into it and forget, for a time, the pure, terrible fact of his own existence and the burden of empathy. It turns your heart upside down and everything begins to float. Inside the essay. Like a sound. Like a small smear of ink. Boundaries blur. Am i going to…enter the existence of another? Roquentin worries inside a description of corporeality, where the real and the imagined collapse.
Nothing seemed true; I felt surrounded by cardboard scenery which could quickly be removed. —Jean-Paul Sartre
My nausea reminds me of something that used to happen when I first moved to New York and worked as a waitress. I imagined dropping things. Involuntarily. I pictured liquid pooling in the corners of trays full of drinks. Tipping a plate of spaghetti solemnly into someone’s lap. Knives clattering along floor tiles. Shattered wine bottles. The crunch of glass under foot. The shame of retreating to the dish-station for a broom. On the worst days I would imagine falling. Foolishly dying a terrible waitress, impaled by a broken carafe. Suddenly I had a vision, Roquentin writes, someone had fallen face down and was bleeding in the dishes. I usually didn’t actually drop things but, distracted by the image of myself bleeding out on the floor, I would come off as odd or nervous. Hearing my own voice from some ways off. Wooden and echoey. Reciting the specials. From memory. Isn’t it strange, I sometimes thought, that I am pretending to be a waitress, as though everyone isn’t pretending to be something.
Are not the imagination and the real equal and inseparable? — Wallace Stevens
Yesterday I took a break from writing and decided to leave my apartment. I took Nausea to a nearby coffee shop and when I walked in I saw someone I knew ordering a coffee at the counter. An acquaintance from the neighborhood. Or someone I attended graduate school with. Or a friend of the person I used to live with and no longer loved. And I did what I always do, instinctively. I panicked and tried to disappear. Into the background. Suddenly elsewhere. Inside Roquentin’s faulty memory. This essay. The nausea. Rooting around for something in my purse. My eyes down. My imaginary phone call. My stomach knocking around. Pretending I’ve forgotten something and maybe even softly saying ‘ah’ as though this thing, this pressing thing, has just occurred to me. Then leaving the coffee shop altogether. Cringing at the little bell on the door that rings when I exit. Waiting, oddly and awkwardly, around the corner for my acquaintance to leave. Or walking briskly to other, less familiar coffee shops. Where I can burn my tongue amongst strangers. I am bad at hellos, I reason. Unanticipated interactions tie me in knots. But yesterday I hoped the floor would open up. A little twinge expands in its violence and urgency. My vision narrows. My palms grow sweaty. Isn’t it strange to run into anyone in a city this large? Statistically. To exist even. A recognizable face. Among all of these unfamiliar ones.
Through the fog you only see the huge mug of nothingness. —Zbigniew Herbert
My favorite passage from Nausea is a description of a street, which like many of the descriptions in the book, is actually a description of Roquentin’s existential condition. The street is inhuman, Roquentin writes, by which he means himself. Like a mineral. Like a triangle. And Roquentin is happy because inside the Nausea he manages to disappear until he becomes neither blood, nor lymph, nor flesh. He manages eventually to be nothing but coldness. To be nothing.
I used to worry that thinking too much about the nature of reality would abstract it from me to the extent that I might have trouble remaining inside of it. This is precisely what people mean, I believe, by the expression “losing it.” This paradox, that the more one thinks about reality, the more one relegates it to the realm of the imagination, is undercut by the idea that being is itself a by-product of cognition. I am the one who pulls myself from the nothingness to which I aspire, Roquentin writes. In this idea there is the possibility of intervention, an empathy that is ontological, an imagination that spills convincingly into the real. I am going to outlive myself, he realizes near the end of the book. And here the real expands into the possible, folds back onto itself.
I have passed out of range of the lamp-post; I enter the black hole. —Jean-Paul Sartre
My nausea ended the same way it began, suddenly and inexplicably. I felt my body harden and the Nausea vanish. My relationship with the person I lived with and no longer loved also ended, finally, around the same time. It was November. Everything that had been dying all fall was finally dead. Inside the apartment we shared. Low ceilings. A warped wooden floor. An overgrown lilac tree outside the kitchen window. A big industrial sink. I could fit inside. The gaps where my furniture used to be. I pretended for awhile that I had left my nausea there, like an abandoned cactus or a forgotten dishtowel. I can only find these scraps of images, and I am not sure what they represent. I have avoided remembering this. And I have avoided the nausea by relegating it to a reality that I no longer inhabit. By outliving myself. By burying it in that apartment on 18th street. Inside the noise of passing traffic. Or in time itself and the way it is bottomless and erodes everything it touches.
I struggle against words; down there I touched the thing. —Jean-Paul Sartre
Can you justify your existence then? Roquentin askes in the final pages of his diary. He is listening to a song and he is shaken by his own empathy for the singer and for the composer, whose mutual and particular suffering are locked inside the music, inside Roquentin’s head. In this scene, empathy is a form of joy. It is the joy of the possibility that anyone will ever understand the suffering in our own hearts. The conclusion of Nausea is also Steven’s conclusion and Mr Cogito’s. What is [the poet’s] function? Steven’s asks. Certainly, it is not to lead people out of the confusion in which they find themselves. It is also not, Mr. Cogito discovers, to alleviate suffering. Instead, we must make from the stuff of suffering / a thing or a person. We must keep trying to describe the ineffable. A particular kind of panic. These regrets. The weightlessness of grief. The sudden, fleeting realization that is lost to time. The beauty of music. The universe. The way it is imperceptibly expanding. How inadequate this sentiment is. To describe the sorrow that grows and engulfs us. How hard it is sometimes to breath. To ride the subway. To wake up. To leave the apartment. And how, finally, we learn the nausea was something else the whole time. But what? Roquentin writes, You would have to guess, behind the printed words, behind the pages, at something which would not exist, which would be above existence.
Nora Almeida is a writer and a librarian. Her essays have appeared in The Offing, Essay Daily, Ghost Proposal, The Normal School, Diagram, and other journals. She lives in Brooklyn.